Q&A: Carbine's high-caliber talent
New NCsoft studio's VP Kevin Beardslee, executive producer Jeremy Gaffney, and producer Eric DeMilt talk about their just-unveiled shop and direction of their first project.
Yesterday, NCsoft officially unveiled the latest development house in its growing stable of massively multiplayer online game makers, Carbine Studios. Based in Orange County, California, the studio contains several industry veterans, including Kevin Beardslee, a former lead developer on World of Warcraft, Jeremy Gaffney, City of Heroes executive producer and cofounder of Turbine Inc., and Tim Cain, lead designer of the original Fallout and cofounder of Troika Games.
Initially founded in 2005 by 10 ex-Blizzard developers, Carbine is currently at work on an as-yet-unannounced project. Though details on the project are still under wraps, Carbine hopes to bring a new perspective to the MMOG market by exploring genres beyond strictly fantasy or sci-fi. The game has just recently wrapped up preproduction, and the studio is now ramping up its operations as it prepares to expand upon the framework.
We spoke with Carbine Studios' Kevin Beardslee, Jeremy Gaffney, and Eric DeMilt on the direction of their first project, how they intend to grow and cannibalize the MMOG market, and why Tim Cain deserves a raise.
GameSpot: The studio was established in 2005. Why are we just hearing about this now?
Jeremy Gaffney: The main reason is we've been in stealth mode. When the studio started up, we had the benefit of starting with a lot of senior guys who have worked on some pretty high-profile titles before, and so we didn't need to do staff upper hiring and we missed a lot of the normal startup issues where people had to learn their roles for the first time. And so, what we've done over the last couple of years is do a lot of the hard work on the game in terms of laying out the infrastructure and establishing our lines creating a new IP. All that sort of fun stuff.
Now it's time, after we've done our first hour or two of content on the game, for the fun part, which is actually creating layering in different systems on top, doing the iteration, and all that kind of thing. That's where we shift from being a 30-or-40-person studio up to being a 90-to-100-person studio. So it's really time to start getting our message out, and we have a lot of top-tier people, and we want to attract more top-tier people.
GS: The studio was first founded with a lot of former Blizzard staff. What prompted you all to leave the biggest massively multiplayer online game on the market and set up your new studio?
Kevin Beardslee: I was the lead animator on WOW. I was on the project from day one, and so when you work on a project for five-plus years, you want to do new stuff. And so, a lot of us had been on the project for quite some time. We're very excited about WOW, very proud of it, but we wanted to try something new. But with an MMO, you have to go to live teams, you have to go to expansions--there's work for multiple years after that. And we just wanted to try something new.
GS: Did you all start off as an NCsoft studio, or what were the initial plans after leaving Blizzard?
KB: We weren't sure exactly what we wanted to do. We basically left Blizzard and talked to a lot of different publishers. And we, being all developers and no real management other than just [project/development] leads, weren't really interested in doing the whole "One of us has to run a studio." And we also weren't all about, "Let's create a big studio that's worth a ton of money and some day sell it." That wasn't our goal. We just wanted to make a really good game. And so when we talked to publishers, it was along the lines of "We want to be a wholly owned subsidiary where we get to run our own studio, but have minimal executives in the deal."
NCsoft really fit a lot of the principals that we had gotten used to having at Blizzard, such as creative freedom, enough time to make a game until it's done, which is hard to find out there. NCsoft had proven it with Guild Wars. Those guys had left Blizzard and formed ArenaNet. And those guys had total freedom, and they got plenty of time to make their game exactly the way they wanted it. That was one of the things we wanted. We were also after the security of being part of a bigger company, and NCsoft is huge in Korea. At the time, it was dwarfing WOW even. So we knew that the company was going to be around for quite some time.
GS: So is it intimidating to go back up against WOW?
KB: Oh, no, we're not intimidated at all. When we made WOW, EverQuest was the big thing--nobody could top EverQuest. And we said, "Well, we just want to make a better game. There's problems with this game that we know we can do better." And so, that was really all we set out to do with WOW. We weren't trying to make something that was a multimillion subscription game. And so we're kind of doing the same thing again here. A lot of us still play WOW, and we're like, "Hey, this can be better."
JG: We have this crazy thought that good games sell. So we just try to make games that we like. I know it's a nut-job philosophy that will never catch on, but it's worked so far.
GS: A lot of you are industry veterans who have worked on big MMOGs, such as Asheron's Call, EverQuest, and City of Heroes. Have you been taking a lot of cues from those games and trying to incorporate them into your new project?
JG: Absolutely. But we're a bunch of gamer geeks, truth be told, right from our rank and file up through our executives. We play everything. We're very critical of our own games, and we play all the games that come out largely because we're geeks. We love this stuff. Because of that, yes, we absolutely look at those games and others as touchstones. Where we've made mistakes in the past...nobody has a better idea of how to fix it than having had to live with it after you've got your game out the door. No product ships where you don't go, "Oh wow, we could do X, Y, and Z better." But knowing what we know now--knowing what an extra five or six years of experience, which is what these games tend to make--you can avoid a lot of what you maybe thought would work back in the day.
GS: In the announcement this morning, it said Carbine would be "breaking new ground" in the MMO market. What exactly does that signify for you guys?
JG: I absolutely think there's a lot of area to evolve games, in terms of what [is] the next likely stage of things to work on." There's some things these games do really well, and there's some not so much. And so obviously, we want to chase down that path. And there are places where there are brand-new systems where you can fundamentally do stuff in a different way and really try to improve it and make it better. One of the holdovers that we have is that there's really a belief in iterating on things. You put stuff in, and then the company speaks because people are playing the games and people's friends are playing the games so there's kind of no BS. Stuff either works or it doesn't. And we're going to try to both evolve and revolt--is the unfortunate word choice [nervous laugh]--in a bunch of different ways. Evolve and revolve. And Darwinian fitness is going to say which of those survive and which of those don't.
GS: A lot of MMOGs that come out these days are by the same big publishers. For instance, Sony Online Entertainment has a whole slew of games and is adding more at a steady clip, and NCsoft isn't exactly lacking either. Do you guys feel that you're just going to be cannibalizing the audience that's already there? Or do you think your new game will attract new players to the genre?
KB: I think we're going to do a little of both. Things that we're doing are aiming toward a broader audience. EverQuest was about 500,000 subscriptions when we were making WOW. And that was a hardcore game. We made WOW a lot less hardcore, and you can see [from] the subscriber base that it's hit. But I still think there's a whole different audience out there, especially if you look at all different genres of games across different platforms. There's an audience out there that I think there are more people to grab from.
JG: Where that challenge is for us is that as gamer geeks, we want to make a very hardcore game because we want a game that excites us and we want to play. But we also want to make a game that appeals beyond that crowd. And so, we think we need to be a better hardcore game than the hardcore games, and we need to be more accessible than the more accessible games. That's really the way to both expand that audience and cannibalize it.
GS: Carbine's site has some interesting artwork that's got a fantasy/sci-fi look, with a sword-and-sorcery theme but characters are wearing bandoliers and pistols. Is that indicative of your first project?
JG: The art is indicative, but we're not talking a ton about the game yet because, in part, we're still in development. And we're also sort of planning our reveals on that. We're definitely letting the art speak for itself right now. We're also a fan of inventing our genres and/or crossing genres, as WOW does to an extent and some of our other games have done to an extent. But we're also into opening up some new areas where we can have some freedom to create, as opposed to working with established clichés. We're giving the creative team more interesting avenues to explore than just your traditional high fantasy or whatever...it's not, "Hey, we want to be different because we need a new genre for a business tactic." The types of choices we're making are more to do with what the creative team wants to do--where they want to take the setting and the stories and the creatures and the characters. And that's kind of how you derive some of those elements that you see in that artwork.
GS: Speaking of the creative, a lot of the Fallout fans were interested to hear that Tim Cain will be involved in the project. What has he been bringing to the game?
JG: Tim's kind of a triple threat because he is a super nice, experienced guy to work with who's seen all sorts of cool projects--from some of what I consider to be the best role-playing games of all time across a whole slew of genres. He's also a killer programmer, and he's also a top-notch designer. That's like, three good hires in one for Tim. And he's a friend of ours. He's worked with a number of the studio's founders before. So what he brings to the court is all of that. I think a lot of the same sensibilities led into the Fallout design and some of the neat aspects of that are making their way into this, especially as he codes systems that he coded in Fallout. On top of that, he's a great manager. We probably underpay him, actually. We'll go give him a raise after this talk.
GS: Sounds like a good idea. Back to the idea of where the game is headed, NCsoft recently announced that it would be partnering with Sony to bring some of its MMOGs to the PS3. Is this one of those games?
JG: We haven't announced anything on that one way or the other. From our design philosophy--part of making things accessible--we think there's a lot to be learned from the console space. We want to take a lot of the learning of what makes console games cool and bring [it] here because I think it helps on the accessibility front. It helps on broadening our audience. Whether we actually go to the console or not is something that we'll talk about in the future, both internally and in terms of what we announce. It's still an open question.
GS: Now that the next-generation consoles have the power of a nice PC, is it easier to develop a PC game with a console version in mind?
KB: I'm not sure it's easier, but it's better in some ways. You have to design within certain constraints to work on a console. It's actually a very powerful PC, but it's very limited in the sense that you'll never have someone with more memory or a better video card. So you need to design for exactly one platform. But what's nice is that whenever you think cross-system development, there's benefits because you have to think about things from a better way and a technical standpoint. You have to think about all those constraints, and it actually means you generally have better code and/or design when you have to work within those constraints. There's also things like the 10-foot UI concept. Consoles are where you're designing something that can be seen from a large way away that's clear and puts things right in your face--right where your eyes are already tracking to on the screen. Those are all smart concepts for the PC side as well. It's just that we're not forced to do that because people aren't sitting in front of a TV playing the game.
GS: You all have said you're carrying over the motto that the game will ship when it's done, but do you have any kind of time frame?
JG: The 1st of When-It's-Done. We're intending to frustrate our bean counters as much as possible in terms of holding out on end dates because we really do strongly believe that it's ready when it's ready. I think that's made the big games succeed in the market. You take the time, you do it right, you polish the heck out of it, and then release it only when you're really proud of it. And that's very much our intent.